What our students need: speed, tools, an open mind
I returned to the classroom Monday and was surprised by the interest my students had about the week that Michael Bugeja and I spent in The Des Moines Register newsroom and on the streets of the city. Students were genuinely curious as to whether we passed the test. The staff at The Register will have to answer that.
To be honest, we didn’t spend much time in the newsroom because we were busy searching for subjects that would result in photographs or interviews to help tell the story of “The New Poverty.” This past week was similar to working on a freelance assignment where I am able to determine the situations to photograph as long as it complements the written text. Michael built the foundation of our piece with the text and I tried to add a layer of meaning with the photographs.
The traditional tools may have changed a bit–typewriters traded for computers and film cameras exchanged for digital cameras, as well as the introduction of new recording devices and means of electronic delivery; but the fundamental purpose of journalism has not changed over the past couple of decades. It still is concerned with informing readers and telling the stories that engage people in our society.
During the week I learned that it is dangerous to make too many generalizations about convergence and new media tools. Two years ago when I spent a week following photojournalists at The Register video was the new tool that was being emphasized. Today, it seems like there is more focus on choosing the right tool for the story.
On the first day I asked Managing Editor Randy Brubaker if I should be prepared to put together a video package in addition to an audio slideshow that I was planning. He made it clear that they don’t use the tools simply for the sake of presentation. He encouraged us to use whatever technology allowed us to tell the story best.
What do our students need? I asked this question a few times during the week and the general consensus is:
1. A familiarity with various technology that allows them to report on different platforms.
2. A traditional news skill such as news reporting, feature writing, visual story-telling, copyediting.
Michael says he agrees with that assessment. He adds that if teaching basic reporting, he would emphasize speed and accuracy–timed tests and expertise with computer assisted reporting–so as to generate content on demand.
I didn’t see any evidence that expertise is needed with several digital tools but rather with just one and a competent working level with others. There is still a strong need for reporting skills. If you know how to use the tools but don’t recognize a good story, a video camera or Twitter will not do you any good. If you know how to recognize a story, but give up when you encounter source or equipment difficulties, you won’t find a place in the metro newspaper.
Something else stood out during my Register experience: You have to be open to change and be ready to adapt as the medium evolves. Those who succeed in journalism today will always be open to change. Those who want to report, shoot, edit or design they way they used to in their comfort zone, won’t make it in the fast-paced newsroom.
Part of keeping an open mind also involves the story based on access to sources, interviews and luck. You still need that nose for news, persistence and courage.
As a photographer I learned how to deal with change prior to the digital age. Our work has always been tied to the available technology and the resulting images are defined by what cameras and lenses are in your bag. Look at award-winning images from the National Press Photographers Association archives over the years and you can see the influence that cameras, lenses and new emulsions had on the best work of the time.
Street photography did not come of age in the era of the Speed Graphic; it needed a smaller and quicker tool in the form of a 35mm camera. The visual records of the 70s and early 80s are defined by the possibilities of the fast telephoto and the 90s by the ultra wide angle.
What is today’s photojournalism going to be defined by? Camera phone images? Flip camera videos?
Only time will tell, but I am sure it will reflect our current technology.